I was buying Belgian chocolates for mother-in-law in the chocolate shop in Cromer when I got chatting with Digby, the owner. "You're opening a new brewery? ", he said. "In Cromer? Oh, I love beer. I used to drink a lot of it but can't drink it now. I've been diagnosed with coeliac disease and beer makes me ill. Why don't you brew a gluten-free beer?" Now, there's a thought. With that I promised I would look into it and see what I could do.
Several months went by and I was busy getting the brewery up and running and learning my craft but one day I thought of Digby and began to search the Internet for the subject of gluten-free beer, of coeliac disease and gluten-intolerance, and hey, just what is gluten anyway? I quickly found that there are lots of unfortunate people out there who love beer and yearn for the flavour (and the effect) but just can't enjoy the products designed for them. I discovered that most gluten-free beers are brewed with ingredients other than barley that are naturally free of the protein complex known as gluten. Cereals such as sorghum, chestnut flour and other ingredients have been used but to many people the results are not quite what they are hoping for. The flavours of these substitutes are, well, just not beer as they know it. Sometimes close, but no cigar. You can brew beer out of almost anything and through the ages people have tried them all but barley is the grain of choice and there is a reason for that. It tastes great. I didn't want Poppyland Brewery to make inferior 'beer' from non-barley grains, so I searched on.
Then I discovered that there is a second route to gluten-free beer: make a great beer from barley as usual but treat it in some way to remove or de-nature the offending gluten. The complex of proteins - hordein and gluten - from barley and wheat irritates the gut of many people and in severe cases the villi in the small intestine can be permanently damaged. Ingestion of gluten for them is a serious and debilitating issue. Yet most suffers are not affected if the level of gluten is less than 20 parts per million (ppm). I have not yet found a method of actually removing gluten but its long chain molecules can be chopped up into their constituent parts - peptides - and thus are harmless to coeliacs or gluten-intolerant people. This can be achieved by using an enzyme, broadly termed a protease, or more specifically Proline Specific Endo-protease, whose job is to cleave the long protein molecules into smaller chunks.
Protein in beer is something that brewers have had to deal with for years, because it comes out of solution, making 'hot break' (undesirable grey solids) and cold break that float to the top or fall to the bottom. Protein makes the beer cloudy. Since the 19th century, when we started drinking out of clear glasses, the production of clearer and paler beers has been the goal of most brewers. Cloudy beer is generally considered undesirable (usually mistakenly so in my opinion). There are brewing processes that help to reduce protein haze but much can be done by choosing low protein barley in the first place and two-row barley (as opposed to six-row) is the premium product with which to make the finest ales. The Maris Otter barley malt that I habitually use is such a low protein barley, so I was already on the right track.
Today's drinkers are highly attuned to the look as well as the taste of beer, mainly through marketing hype by the breweries. A beer that turns cloudy when you put it in the fridge is not what the breweries want at all. That's caused by soluble proteins becoming insoluble at lower temperatures and precipitating in suspension - making 'chill haze'. Beer is big business, so a lot of research has gone into making it 'better' and more desirable for customers. A company called DSM in the Netherlands developed a product that is designed to prevent chill haze in beer and it is marketed under the name of Brewers Clarex (introduced in 2005). It is very effective at chopping up the long protein molecules into shorter ones - peptides - which don't come out of solution at low temperature, so the beer remains perfectly clear. Some of that protein is gluten, so it too is destroyed by the active enzyme. Lo! and behold - a side effect of this process is to render the beer 'gluten-free'.
I contacted DSM about Brewers Clarex (http://www.dsm.com/markets/foodandbeverages/en_US/products/enzymes/brewing/brewers-clarex.html) and asked them where I could get it in the UK. The salesman told me that most of it goes to the USA*. Maybe the best thing, he said, would be for him to send me a sample to try. The smallest they do is a 500 ml sample bottle. As it only needs 3 - 7 g per hectolitre (100 litres) of beer that sample was going to last me a long time. My brew length is only 320 litres at most and I brew up to twice a month, so it should last at least a year and a half. It is stable and only loses 5% efficacy per year, so it won't spoil before it is all used up.
A tiny quantity of enzyme (20-25 ml in my case) is added to the fermenter at the same time as the yeast. Over the course of the fermentation the yeast agitates the beer at a molecular level and the enzyme gets to do its work cleaving the gluten. So by the time the beer is ready to package it is well below 20 ppm gluten and in some cases completely undetectable. I initially used a gluten-in-food test kit from Imutest to check that every batch of beer had been dosed with Clarex. But since September 2014 I have changed the testing regime and now use the most sensitive assay available for highly processed products such as beer, which is a competitive R5 ELISA. The specific product I use is the Ridascreen Gliadin Competitive conducted on every batch by Murphy & Son and so far it demonstrates that Brewers Clarex reduces gluten to under 10 parts per million. So a litre of Poppyland beer contains less than the minimum daily dose of gluten that is thought to be safe for coeliacs.
There are some fierce critics, especially in the USA, who state that brewers using ingredients that contain gluten can never claim their beer to be gluten-free. But in the EU there is no such category of food labelling as 'gluten-reduced'. It is either 'gluten-free' if under 20 ppm, 'very low gluten' if below 100 ppm or 'contains gluten' if above. The Brewers Clarex has no effect on the quality of the beer - either flavour, texture, colour or any other parameter as far as I can tell (and the manufacturers assert), so I have now adopted the treatment of the fermenting beer with Brewers Clarex as standard procedure and I am happy to offer my beer to the public as 'gluten-free'. The Coeliac Society raises no objection to this method of treatment and coeliac and gluten-intolerant customers who have tried Poppyland beers report that they suffered no deleterious effects but I always recommend proceeding with caution.
If it is so good, why don't other breweries make gluten-free beer? Well many of them do use Brewers Clarex as a cure for chill-haze, especially the big brewers. They just don't sing about the side-effect of creating gluten-free beer. I think that the addition of a small amount of an enzyme, which is derived from a common fungus called Aspergillus niger, is not difficult to do, is cheap and not deleterious to the quality of the beer and if it benefits coeliacs and gluten-intolerant people: WHY NOT?
* since writing this Murphy & Son (www.murphyandson.co.uk/) have gained the UK franchise to sell Brewers Clarex.